Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Lagavulin, 200th Anniversary 8 year old

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 8 years old, 48%, $65

For some writers, criticizing Diageo is practically a sport; and the company seems to feed them plenty of ammunition (see the “controversies” section of their Wikipedia page if you don’t believe me). While I really don’t enjoy writing negative blog posts, if the situation warrants it I have no problem castigating Diageo, or anyone else for that matter. I definitely laid into them when I wrote about my experience touring the George Dickel distillery. On the other hand, I’m happy to sing their praises when they do the right thing.

With Lagavulin celebrating their 200th anniversary in 2016, I was curious to see what would be put on offer for her fans wanting to commemorate the special occasion. This was especially true in light of the fact that the distillery’s two closest neighbors marked their bicentennials the previous year and Laphroaig got it so right while Ardbeg got it so wrong. They did bottle a 51.7%, Sherry cask aged, 25 year old Lagavulin. But at $1200, that one was for the high-rollers. We of more modest income got a limited release 8 year old bottling.

I know, some are bemoaning a special release that’s at half the age of the flagship 16 year old and priced only modestly lower. So, why was I impressed? We’ve been presented with a bottling of Lagavulin that is bound to be quite different than the standard expression due to the big age differential. It’s also bottled at 48%, a healthy step up from the 43% of the 16 year old.

This whisky also needs no marketing fluff to distract from a lack of an age-statement, and regardless of its relative youth, a limited-edition special release at $65 is pretty reasonable by today’s standards. Anything older than 16 years would have been exorbitantly expensive (in the mid-$70’s, the 16 year old is already steeply priced for a brand’s main bottling, but it’s not really out of line relative to other producer’s offerings in the 16 to 18 year range).

Many respectable single malts were bottled as 8 year olds back in the 1970’s, but age statements generally crept up as sales dropped off in the 1980’s. As supplies have run thin over the last decade, age statements have largely disappeared rather than retreat. I’ve been a proponent of modestly priced 8 year olds since Gordon & MacPhail introduced such a series about five years ago.

Most importantly though, this 8 year old expression is a tip of the hat to Alfred Barnard, a spirits journalist who toured most of the whisky distilleries in the U.K. over the course of 1885-1886 and published his combined essays as The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom in 1887. While visiting Lagavulin his party tasted “some eight years old”, which he described as “exceptionally fine”.

I own a copy of Barnard’s book, and what was even more interesting to me was the sentence that followed his reference to the whisky he tasted – “The make is largely used for blending purposes, but it is also sold as a single Whisky; there are only a few of the Scotch Distillers that turn out spirit for use as single Whiskies, and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent.”

Much to my relief, Diageo managed to invoke Barnard without any historical distortions. Let’s keep in mind though, this whisky was inspired by the 8 year old Lagavulin that Barnard praised, it’s not supposed to be a recreation of it. That would have been a fool’s errand; no samples of Lagavulin exist from anywhere near the Victorian era and we know from Barnard’s chronicles that back then the stills at Lagavulin were roughly half the size of the ones that are in use today. Additionally, it’s been more than 40 years since the distillery was modernized, leaving behind its floor maltings, worm tubs and direct-fired stills.

That being said, I did at least expect this bottling to free of artificial color and chill filtration, especially given its elevated alcohol level. But neither of those features was touted on the packaging.

Looking around online, I saw mixed reports as to whether or not this whisky has artificial coloring added. I could imagine them leaving off a “coloring free” statement, even if that was the case, because it might draw attention to the fact that Lagavulin’s flagship 16 year old is artificially colored. But then I started to see documentation of bottles shipped to Germany, where the labeling requirements are more stringent, bearing a declaration of added coloring.

Seeing how light the whisky looks in the glass, I’d say that if there is caramel coloring in the mix it’s an incredibly minor amount, as in just enough to make the color consistent across all of the bottling runs. Looking at the 16 year by comparison shows just how heavily colored that whisky probably is. I believe both expressions have a small Sherry cask component, so that shouldn’t be a factor in their differing color profiles.

I’ve also seen a lot of mixed opinions as to whether of not the 8 year old was chill filtered. Most of those opinions were based on speculation and conjecture. Finally, I came across a comment from someone who had heard Iain McArthur say at a distillery tasting that Diageo chill filters everything from Lagavulin, including the cask strength bottlings. Baby steps Diageo, baby steps.

First I tasted the 16 year old at 43% as a benchmark:

Color – Dark golden-amber.
Nose – The aromas are peaty and bold, with dry earth, dark fruit and coastal minerality.
Palate – It’s full-bodied, with complex, earthy fruit notes showing up-front. By the mid-palate a big wave of peaty intensity has risen up and overshadowed the initial character. Finally, dry spice notes come into play as it evolves further.
Finish – The peat smoke and dry spiciness go back and forth, vying for dominance as it meanders through the lengthy finish. Nuttiness and subtle fruit notes linger on to lend complexity.
Overall – Powerful and balanced; 16 years seems to be a very good place for this distillate.

Then it was on to the 8 year old at 48%:

Color – Lighter than pale straw, it almost looks like clear spirit when the glass is held up to a grey background.
Nose – Peat and minerality come through, but it’s more bright and floral, with some stone fruit showing.
Palate – Apple, peach and pear all show up-front, with the peat smoke becoming more dominant as it moves on. A minty floral character eventually emerges in the background
Finish – Dry spice notes come out to play and mingle with the peat smoke late in the game here as well, but minus the nutty, earthy character.
Overall – There’s a youthfulness to it. Not to the point of being detrimental, but just enough to bring back fond memories of tasting new-make spirit at Lagavulin when I toured the distillery. It may lack some of the refinement of the flagship offering, but it still shows quite well at half the age.

This may not be a ground-breaking expression, but it’s certainly interesting to see a different facet of Lagavulin, and I think that’s really the point of this bottling. Of course, drawing attention to the works of Alfred Barnard will always get a nod of approval from me as well.

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